For University of Wisconsin seniors Jonathan Williams, Yolanda Pruitt and James Gavins, the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community has provided opportunities beyond what any of them could have imagined before college.
The First Wave program is a multicultural artistic program for undergraduate students at UW.
The relationships formed through First Wave lead to real-world business and artistic connections, which can later lead to monumental things for students currently in the program.
From performing in California, Florida, across the pond in the United Kingdom and the halftime show at a New York Knicks game, as well as getting the opportunity to intern with institutions like the New York Knicks and HOT 97 radio, First Wavers have a collegiate experience like no other.
“It humbles you,” Williams said. “Some of us come in with egos, but you grow a lot because there are so many people around to critique you and build your maturity.”
First Wave was launched in 2007 with 15 students and has grown to more than 60 students in 2014. Members of each cohort come to campus from around the country, with the possibility of receiving a full tuition scholarship for four years.
Yolanda Pruitt, originally from Phoenix, said her first encounter with First Wave was at a poetry festival.
“I was at a youth poetry festival in 2009 during high school,” Pruitt said. ”There was a performance of people on stage with all black clothing, and I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is nice!’” Pruitt said. “My coach and English teacher told me to go ask people about program. In my head I was like, ‘There is no way I’m going to Wisconsin’, but as senior year drew on, the woman who was recruiting for First Wave came all the way to Arizona to recruit me, so on the last day the application was due I applied. The rest is history.”
From the moment First Wave students set foot on campus in the summer before their freshman year for what is dubbed as “Summer Collegiate Experience,” they are immersed in academics, along with the company of their fellow cohorts.
This program provides new First Wavers with a six to eight credit schedule, and tuition, room and board and books are provided for free.
First Wave holds students to a 3.0 GPA standard, or they are not allowed to participate in the internships and tour opportunities the program offers.
Not only are academic standards and the discipline of the students rigid, but the collaborative effort that is First Wave also provides an atmosphere for a creative process in which all members contribute.
“Usually I’m not around so many concentrated artists in one area,” Gavins said. ”So many times I was just sitting in and listening to people. Sitting in DJ Cohortz’ tour bus. Talking to James Brown’s drummer. You get around so much professional art that it starts to mature with you.”
The program’s culture of creative collaboration and academic excellence has led to former First Wavers holding a range of jobs and internships, including places like Ralph Lauren and Teach for America.
First Wavers also said they carry big dreams with them as they look forward to life after graduation.
“I’m looking into graduate school at the [Robert E McNair Scholars Program], then I want to pursue an acting career in California,” Williams said. “Right now I’m writing a book and working on a play.”
Williams said his most memorable moments aren’t necessarily the tours or meeting famous personalities.
All the seniors spoke of their memories of First Wave fondly, saying the program fosters a family-like atmosphere.
“I will remember the jokes,” Williams said. “The time we spent outside of tech rehearsal — just going to each other’s houses and cooking. Those are what I remember most.”